Game 11 Preview – Marshall

The Houston Cougars travel to Huntington, West Virginia to battle the Marshall Thundering Herd at Joan C. Edwards Stadium Saturday afternoon. Kickoff is scheduled for 11am (CST), and will be televised locally by CSS. Marshall, led by head coach Doc Holiday who is 16-19 in his third season,

is facing a similar situation to last season in needing two wins in their final two regular season games in order to qualify for a bowl game.

In fact, in a game matching up two teams with identical 4-6 (3-3 in conference) records, this game could be labeled the ‘desperation bowl’ as the loser of this game will fail to qualify for a bowl game this season (six wins are required for a bowl on the FBS level). Even if the winner can win their final game of the regular season and somehow qualify for a bowl, it probably wouldn’t be an impressive bowl matchup. That hardly matters to head coaches, however, as a bowl game gives teams an extra 15 practices that most coaches use as a ‘mini Spring ball’ in which they can evaluate younger talent while still preparing for their bowl opponent. A bowl game is also a nice reward for the student athletes as it takes them to a city they’ve probably never been to before. That’s neither here nor there as the Cougars must win this game in order to even think about bowl participation, and with the way the team has played the past few weeks (they’ve lost three out of their last four by an average margin of 28 points), the major question for head coach Tony Levine is can he get this team to rebound mentally after such poor performances, especially while playing on the road?

Matchups – While this appears to be a game that has the makings of a shoot-out that might not necessarily be the case with the Cougars being so inconsistent on offense over the past few games. Consistency has also been a problem for Marshall as they haven’t won back-to-back games this season. This will be a game matching the top two passing teams in the conference as Marshall averages nearly 360 yards (511 total) while the Coogs pass for 325 yards  (475 total) per game through the air. The Thundering Herd run an up-tempo pass first (and second and third) spread offense under co-coordinators Bill Legg and Tony Peterson. As with any type of high octane passing offense, the quarterback is the key cog in the machine and Marshall has a good one in Rakeem Cato. The 6-foot, 180 pound sophomore out of Miami, Florida just set a team record for completions (343) in a season, breaking the mark formerly held by Peterson himself. Cato has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes and his 350 passing yards per game ranks him second nationally. He is also a good decision maker as he has a better than a 3:1 touchdown-interception ratio (29 to 8) in ten games.

Unfortunately for the Herd, two of their top three receivers are unlikely to play Saturday, according to Holiday. Seniors Antavious Wilson (626 yards on 55 receptions with 5 TDs) and Aaron Dobson (618, 53, and 2) have not practiced yet this week and are listed as doubtful (as of this writing). This will place more pressure on their leading receiver, Tommy Shuler – a 5’8, 185 pound water bug out of Miami. The sophomore averages nearly nine receptions per game (87 through 10 games) for almost 90 yards (892) along with 3 TDs. With Wilson and Dobson out, look for Cato to look for tight end ‘Gator’ Hoskins even more than he already does. The 6-2, 240 pound junior out of Gainesville, Florida has 347 yards on 34 receptions but has caught TEN touchdowns this season (which ranks first in CUSA and is tied for seventh nationally). And in case you’re noticing a reoccurring theme, yes – Holiday does love to recruit the state of Florida as he has been a coach in the state for many years, most noticeably for Florida State before taking the head job in Huntington. After the four aforementioned receivers, the receiving stats drop noticeably to little used Demetrius Evans (193, 21, and 2), Eric Frohnapfel (129, 13, 2) and C.J. Crawford (107, 11).

In mirroring the Cougars, the Thundering Herd have had trouble getting their running game going over the past few games. Since rushing for 275 yards in a 59-24 win over Southern Mississippi four weeks ago, they’ve rushed for a total of only 279 yards (on 104 carries) in the past three games. Kevin Grooms (577 yards on 98 carries with 7 TDs) and Remi Watson (347, 71) have picked up the slack for Travon Van, whom hasn’t played since the third game of the season. Both Grooms and Watson have seven rushing TDs each. Even though he hasn’t started any games, redshirt freshman Steward Butler has also contributed majorly in the Herd’s running game with 484 yards on 97 carries along with 3 TDs. Watson is more the pounder at 205 pounds while both Grooms and Watson are more of the scat back type (as they weight around 165 pounds each). Marshall averages 152 yards per game rushing (slightly more than the Coogs 148), which place them fifth and sixth respectively in conference.

This game could be determined by who runs more effectively as not only will a ground game take pressure off of both quarterbacks, but will also grind out the clock, helping both defenses get some much needed rest on the sidelines. Marshall ranks 105th in the nation as they hold onto the ball for 27 plus minutes, while of course we know the problems our Cougars are having as they rank next to last in the entire nation with 24 minutes of possession time offensively. The Herd, much like the Cougars, have seemed to be a feast-or-famine type of offense – either methodically driving down the field for a score, or going ‘three and out.’ On the Herd’s side, starting six different combinations along the offensive line (in ten games) has probably contributed to that the most. Marshall’s line, led by massive left tackle Jordan Jeffries (6’8, 315) averages about 298 pounds per man. Alex Schooler (6’6, 303) is at left guard while Cameron Dees, a 280 pound true freshman will be starting his second game at center, with redshirt sophomore Chris Jasperse moving to right guard. Junior Garrett Scott moves from guard to right tackle. They’ve allowed 20 sacks as a unit, placing them in the bottom third of the nation.

Cougars defensive coordinator, Jamie Bryant, might want to copy UAB’s game plan as they ‘held’ Cato to 216 yards (on 25 completions) while sacking him three times using just a three man front. They dropped eight in various types of zones almost the entire game, daring the Herd to beat them rushing the ball. Marshall rushed the ball 41 times, 27 in the first half compared to only 13 passes as they trailed 24-7. Marshall rushed for 145 yards but would eventually lose 38-31 as they started passing more in ‘catch-up mode’ during the second half. Under Bryant this season, the Coogs have blitzed up to 60 percent of the time, especially with linebackers Phillip Steward (104 tackles including 16.5 for loss and 9 sacks) and Derrick Mathews (102, 16, 5). Both linebackers are in the top ten nationally in both categories. Steward will probably be matched up with Hoskins quite a bit with corner back Thomas Bates on Shuler (with top cover corner D.J. Hayden out for the season with his unfortunate injury). Bates had his best game of the season last week against a much more physical receiver but still had seven tackles and three pass breakups on the game. Overall, when the starting free safety (Trevon Stewart) is the defenses leading tackler (106 including 50 solo which is 12th nationally), you know the defense is in bad shape as the Coogs have allowed opponents to pass for an average of 275.5 yards per game (109th nationally), rush for almost 200 (198.7 – 97th) and score 37.1 points per game (114th).

Fortunately for the Cougars, the Herds’ defense isn’t much better as they allow opponents to score an average of 41.1 points per game (119th), pass for an average of 227.8 (55th) and rush for a staggering 221.8 yards per game (113th), under coordinator third year coordinator Chris Rippon. If Cougars offensive coordinator Travis Bush can’t get his offense to finally get their running game going against this defense, then they don’t deserve a bowl game (many will argue that’s already the case though). During his weekly media press conference, Levine talked about his struggling offense (via, "We need to run the football, but if I know we can throw it and move the chains, we throw it and move the chains. We're not consistent enough right now in the passing game, whether it's protection, whether it's the throws not being accurate or whether it's first passes. If we throw it on first down and it's incomplete for whatever reason, now we're facing second and 10 and we're deciding whether to run it, throw a screen, throw it down field, and if we get a couple yards and it's then third and seven, I don't mean to sound negative but if we throw and don't get the first we go three and out and have only taken up 30 seconds on the clock. We've got to be able to move the chains whether we run it, whether we throw it, we have to be able to sustain drives on offense and do that early in the game. Both teams need to have some success and experience some confidence building plays early in this game."

With Charles Sims status still in doubt (due to his ankle injury suffered at ECU two weeks ago), the brunt of the running game will again fall on Kenneth Farrow (314 yards on 63 carries with 2 TDs). The redshirt sophomore has had trouble running between the tackles the past few games due to a few reasons; a.) Lack of emphasis by Bush (due in large part to being down big early versus both ECU and Tulsa) and b.) Inconsistent run blocking up front. Right guard Jacolby Ashworth left last week’s game after the second series with an apparent knee injury. As of this writing he’s listed as doubtful. Barring a miraculous comeback, Kevin Forsch will move from his usual center spot to replace Ashworth, with Bryce Redman replacing Forsch at center. Both have experience with their respective positions as Forsch started all fourteen games at right guard last season and Redman has played quite extensively at center this season as Forsch has played at both guard positions due to injury throughout the season.

Up front for Marshall (in their 4-3 scheme), defensive end Jeremiah Taylor leads the way with 3.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. Tackle Brandon Sparrow has 3 sacks with 6 tackles for loss followed by fellow tackle – Marques Aiken with 2 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss. At the other end spot is Alex Bazzie (with 2 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss). Combined the front four averages out to about 263 pounds per man with Sparrow the heaviest (289) and Bazzie the lightest (at 225). On the next level, the Thundering Herd have their own Derrick Mathews in 190 pound sam linebacker D.J. Hunter. And much like Mathews, the redshirt freshman is a tackling machine as he has 78 (including 2.5 for loss, 2 pass breakups and 1 forced fumble) in nine starts. Starting will linebacker, Devin Arrington (47 tackles, 1 interception), is out (according to Holiday during his weekly media press conference) so Deon Meadows (2 fumble recoveries) will probably start in his place. Their starting middle (or mike) linebacker spot has alternated between Jermaine Holmes and Billy Mitchell over the past four games as both have battled injuries. Holmes (5’11, 240) will look to live in the Cougars backfield as he has accumulated 10.5 tackles for loss (amongst his 52 total). Mitchell has only played in the last four games after coming back from an injury and has averaged nearly six tackles per game. The physical 6’3, 240 pounder can also play at the will spot as well.

The Herd’s leading tackler is starting strong safety Dominic LeGrande with 108 (60 solo) and has intercepted 2 passes in coverage. Starting free safety Okechukwu Okoroha (don’t even ask me how to pronounce that) is the defenses next leading tackler with 95 and although the Lagos, Nigeria native has no interceptions, he has pitched in on the back end with four pass breakups. The starting corners have rotated (due to injury) amongst Derrick Thomas, Keith Baxter (whom have one interception each) and Monterius Lovett (two interceptions in limited playing time). None of the three weigh more than 190 pounds and rely on the physically bigger safeties for help over the top.

Speaking of needing help, Cougars QB David Piland will need his receivers to play mistake free ball, as in catch passes that hit their hands, in order to keep the chains moving. Running the correct depth on certain routes will also help the Cougars young signal caller. If Piland gets into a rut early, whether due to Marshall’s pressure, his receivers dropping passes or the lack of a run game, his mechanics seem to regress as he starts to throw passes either behind (or too low) to his receivers. If you notice the redshirt sophomore continually throwing passes off the back of his foot, instead of stepping into his passes, this offense is done. It would help if Bush had Piland roll out some, even throwing passes off of called bootlegs on play-action, which seems to help settle the young QB, especially early on.  Although he has passed for 294 yards per game on average, his 57 percent completion percentage along with tossing only 16 TDs to 12 interceptions is one of the main reasons why this team is only averaging 30.8 points per game (48th nationally and only 5th in CUSA, or one spot lower than Rice). That point per game average is the teams’ worst in years along Cullen Boulevard – a place where scoring points hadn’t been a problem over the past eight or so years.

Fortunately, Piland has received more help this week as Dewayne Peace has returned to the team after serving a three game suspension due to unspecified team violations. Of course Peace was as guilty as any of his fellow receivers in dropping passes, but having his team leading 42 receptions (for 458 yards and 2 TDs) will be a welcome addition. Piland likes to spread the wealth around as he hasn’t found a ‘go-to’ receiver yet among Deontay Greenberry (412, 38, 2), Mark Roberts (119, 9, 1) and Xavier Maxwell (68, 6) on the outside or among inside receivers Daniel Spencer (584, 41, 3), Larry McDuffy (359, 24, 4), Shane Ros (285, 18, 1) or Ronnie Williams (162, 19,1). Much of the inconsistency has come due to lack of playing time whether due to lack of production or injury as the above mentioned eight receivers have been shuffled in and out of the lineup the entire season.

Special teams – Can the Cougars finally create a positive game changing type play? Their kick and punt return averages (17.1 and 3.6) rank amongst the lowest in the entire nation (120th and 113th respectively), quite a difference from last season’s 44th ranked kickoff (22.3) and 13th ranked punt return average (13.1), led by returners Tyron Carrier and Patrick Edwards (boy those were the days). True freshman Ryan Jackson lost the kick return spot a few games ago after only averaging 16.9 yards per return while fumbling quite a few, or making bad decisions in general on when to bring them out of the endzone. The job now seems to be in the hands of receiver Marcus Williams (20.5 average on 6 returns) and Spencer (17.2 average on 4 returns over the past few games). Spence had a nice 32 yard return to open last week’s game against Tulsa. As for punt returns, the job seems to be Damian Payne’s, but he’s only returned 3 punts for a total of 5 yards. The most important thing for the punt returns team is not to turn the ball over, as had been the case when Peace was the returner. In this aspect, it’s NOT ok to ‘Give Peace a Chance.’

While Marshall’s coverage teams may be lacking (in allowing 25 yards on kick returns and nearly 10 yards on punt returns), they are aggressive in getting after the football so punter Richie Leone and kicker Matt Hogan need to be on high-alert as Marshall is first in the nation with seven total blocks; three on extra points, two punts and a field goal try this season. (Jeremiah) Taylor has two blocks (a Memphis FG and a Purdue PAT) as does (Marques) Aiken (UCF PAT and a UAB FG). Other blocks are by backup tight end C.J Crawford (West Virginia punt), receiver Jermain Kelson (Purdue punt) and (Deon) Meadows (UCF PAT). Last season they blocked seven total kicks, ranking them fourth in the nation. This aspect of the Herd’s special teams truly is a game changer.

Saturday’s game is expected to be played in beautiful weather as the forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and a high of around 57 degrees for kickoff, so weather won’t be an excuse for either team. If the Cougars can get out to an early lead, which is something they haven’t done the entire season on the road, and keep win the turnover battle (the Cougars are at minus 8 which ranks 105th nationally while Marshall has a plus two ration ranking them 49th in the nation), they have a shot at pulling out the victory. In an odd fact, Marshall has received The Opening kickoff in 15 straight games, but in seven of them they have gone ‘three and out.’ It is imperative that the Coogs gain some early momentum whether on offense, defense or special teams to keep their confidence up and to take out the 38 thousand plus rowdy Herd fans.

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